No artist since George Balanchine has so completely dominated an artwork kind as Sondheim has his.

{Photograph} from Hulton Archive / Corbis / Getty

Stephen Sondheim made his final public look on the first preview of the revival of “Firm,” his 1970 basic, final Monday evening, the fifteenth of November. Ninety-one, and slightly slowed however not visibly ailing, Sondheim was greeted by the Broadway viewers, as he took his seat, within the left orchestra, with an emotional depth that was tidal in its ferocity and length. The emotion was doubled, maybe tripled, by the aid at Broadway’s returning to life in any respect—it was, with out exception, essentially the most overwhelming tribute that I’ve ever skilled within the theatre. Now that second is sealed as historical past, since Sondheim would die lower than two weeks later, on Friday the twenty-sixth, at his home in Connecticut.

No artist since George Balanchine had so completely dominated an artwork kind as Sondheim had his. It was a reality of which he was ruefully conscious, writing, in a music known as, caustically, “God,” “Nonetheless you must have one thing to consider in / Some belongings you applicable / Emulate / Overrate / May as nicely be Stephen.” A technology of musical-theatre artists have been outlined by their relationship to him—some to some extent virtually self-destructive, measuring themselves in opposition to the Druid of Turtle Bay in ways in which he didn’t precisely welcome however couldn’t precisely stop. Adam Guettel, the good composer of “The Mild within the Piazza”—and, as Richard Rodgers’s grandson, hardly harmless of dominant theatrical figures—remembers having Sondheim come to see an early efficiency of the present in 2007, and the way everybody’s eyes fixated on the again of Sondheim’s head, simply to attempt to discern, by its actions, the oracular verdict. (It was, Guettel remembers, a cheerful and nimble neck, till a second-act violation of the fourth wall offended Sondheim’s sense of story decorum, and all hell broke free across the collar.)

But his was a late-arriving legend, arduous received from a resistant Broadway industrial tradition; not like Balanchine’s artwork kind, Sondheim’s counted box-office, and labelled hits and flops irrevocably. Sondheim was maybe extra conscious of the industrial uncertainties of his personal work than his worshippers fairly knew or needed. (As soon as, in dialog, he asserted to me the reality {that a} musical’s future is decided by its first ten minutes, which lay out the night’s guidelines for the viewers. Effectively, I requested impertinently, what about “Follies,” whose first ten minutes are notably knotty? “Sure,” he snapped again, not completely good-naturedly. “And ‘Follies’ has by no means made a penny again to any of its traders.”)

The lineaments of Sondheim’s ascent are a part of musical-theatre legend: how he was rescued from a troubled childhood—his mom as soon as wrote him a cheerily confidential letter saying that she regretted ever having given start to him—by the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, a close to neighbor in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, who taught him the skilled rudiments of musical-theatre building and the human potentialities of a hotter coronary heart. Relegated by his apparent dexterity to be a mere lyricist, Sondheim needed to struggle to be taken significantly as a composer. It was a tough climb, assisted, as all such are, by perseverance, and the occasional orneriness of those that refuse to be good on the expense of their very own expertise.

When this author first encountered Sondheim’s work at size—exterior the inevitable collision with the lyrics to “West Facet Story,” at which he normally winced (“I really feel fairly and witty and vibrant,” sung by a Puerto Rican teen-ager?)—it was within the 1977 London revue “Facet by Facet by Sondheim.” Sondheim was a cult style, introduced ahead by English discernment in opposition to the run of American favor. Earlier than “Sweeney Todd” or “Into the Woods,” Sondheim’s fame rested on the equivocal success of “Firm,” the art-house shine of “Follies,” and the right romantic roundelay of “A Little Night time Music.”

But the revue was one of many nice revelations of a lifetime—and never for the “sophistication” alone, the dazzling informal linguistic virtuosity, exemplified by throwaways, such because the bridge of “Uptown Downtown,” a few lady divided between her two identities: “She sits on the Ritz along with her splits of Mumm’s / And begins to pine for a stein along with her Village pals, / However with a Schlitz in her mitts down at Fitzroy’s Bar, / She begins to consider the Ritz, oh it’s so schizo.” No, even that virtuosity couldn’t obscure the extra essential aspect of Sondheim, the depth and surprise and empathy of his articulate passions. Although he wrote few mating calls of the kind that dominate pop songwriting, no songwriter—not Rodgers, not Schubert—has ever written so many nice songs of longing and wanting, from “Too Many Mornings,” in “Follies,” the music of a person rediscovering a decades-lost love, to “Loving You,” from “Ardour,” the anthem of a psycho stalker made humanly believable. Sondheim was accused by some critics of being merely “bitter,” and nothing dates so quick as sourness—if that had been what Sondheim counted on, he would have handed into historical past together with different cynics. Wits who stay famed for wit, from Oscar Wilde to Dorothy Parker, are hardly ever cynical; simply the alternative, they arrive to us shining with religion and hope, however are too good to fake that it’s been rewarded. Sondheim, equally, was by no means actually bitter. He was, as an alternative, persistently bittersweet, like one of the best, and darkest, darkish chocolate.

Sondheim might be ferociously ornery with performers, and God is aware of with critics. He as soon as wrote a memorable no-thank-you observe a few singer who was too unsubtle for his songs: “She screws up the lyrics royally, she even sings the improper tune. . . . You name it sprightly for her to not change her tune. I name it lazy and egocentric. . . . I informed you I’m being candid. Really I’m being type.” He famous in an e-mail that one other singer “was so off-pitch that with a view to hold my cool in public I needed to fake to myself that I used to be at some peaceable blue Fiji lagoon, the solar setting and squads of flamingos gracefully flapping round.” (John Mulaney captured that Sondheimian face in a hilarious impersonation in a “Documentary Now!” parody.) In a world gone vanilla-bland, there was one thing bracing about his orneriness, and it was meaningfully different by the care and attentiveness—a whole lot of e-mails, numerous notes, arduous and delicate—to performers he thought worthy of his work, or simply worthy in their very own. Towards the tip of his life, notably, he appeared to have overwhelmed down his demons, and his exchanges with youthful performers and composers, and even, sometimes, with these horrible critics, have been appreciative and humorous, with ornery a mere bracing savory taste among the many sweets.

His legacy is one which can be debated and argued over so long as individuals care about musical theatre. John Lahr, for years the theatre critic of this journal, was one of many few to supply heresy concerning the Church of Sondheim: “Sondheim spoke to the disenchantment of the occasions,” he wrote, “and his strategy turned him not a lot into a celeb as a theology.” It is doable to worship Sondheim simply shy of idolatry and never tip over. There’s a half-silenced faculty of thought that nearly needs Sondheim had been adopted by Larry Hart slightly than Oscar Hammerstein—he by no means fairly outgrew the older man’s style for greeting-card uplift and fortifying sentiments. Songs like “Kids Will Pay attention” and “No One Is Alone,” nonetheless shifting when nicely sung, might come to be seen because the “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” and “You’ll By no means Stroll Alone” of our time. (That isn’t meant as reward.) The primary act of “Sunday within the Park with George,” achieved with James Lapine, would be the single smartest thing in American musical theatre; the second act, regardless of strenuous efforts, is nearly unsalvageable. And, like Balanchine’s edicts of abstraction, Sondheim’s “No!”s—no off rhymes, no songs for their very own sake, no mere lists, no self-conscious wit of the Porter-Hart type—have been each empowering and limiting. Empowering as a result of they gave form and excessive seriousness to an artwork kind too typically patronized; limiting as a result of they reshaped musical theatre to a narrowly particular rule and should have squeezed a few of the pleasure and juice out of it in doing so.

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